Conference on early literacy screening — Washington, D.C.

A- A A+

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Feb. 23, 2005 before the Washington, D.C., conference on early literacy screening.

I come before you in profound awareness that your wisdom and expertise on such matters as early education, early literacy and learning disabilities exceeds my own. And I come before you with deep respect for the difference you make – as researchers and practitioners — in so many lives.

You have before you a convert to the cause, someone whose second chapter of life is energized by my somewhat-late-in-life discovery that all children need stimulating early care and education experiences – the right blend of health and education, love and nurturing.

I applaud, and support with all my energies, the five great missions of the people in this room this noontime:

  1. 1: Early literacy screening as a useful, necessary tool for early educators and parents to understand how children are developing and to inform instruction and support of children who are behind where they need to be.
  2. 2: Improving professional development of early educators by understanding how to use screening and, hence, build teacher skills.
  3. 3: An emphasis on early literacy development in pre-K programs, without forgetting the imperatives of social-emotional-physical development and growth.
  4. 4: The crucial nature of access for all children to high-quality pre-K programs because, as you know so well, only high quality really makes a difference in outcomes for children.
  5. 5: The crucial imperative of early recognition, identification and intervention for vulnerable children, including those with learning disabilities and other special needs. We have enormous research evidence underscoring the case that such can lead to children with a far better chance to succeed in school, and in life.

I note before proceeding further that among our work that means the most to me in Miami these days is a Tremaine Foundation project that is leading to a community-wide effort to identify children with LD earlier. This most meaningful undertaking will be fully enmeshed in all else that we do in a community-wide “school readiness” initiative.

You have before you a father and grandfather. Though I think our five children were raised according to the principles of high-quality early childhood development, care and education, I most certainly did not recognize any of these as “principles.” Had never heard of Smart Start in North Carolina. Or voluntary “universal pre-K” in Georgia. Or First 5 in California. Or the brain research that undergirds all our work.

You also have before you a journalist with a 35-year career at seven newspapers as reporter, editor or publisher. Someone who loved his work so much that he – I – never missed a day of work in all those years. On call 24 hours a day. Who knows whom you might meet, what stories you might do. It certainly was not all glamour — the tough, frustrating days were not infrequent — but then again how many people get to interview the President of the United States and Fidel Castro? How many people actually meet the Pope? How many people have the privilege of working for a community institution that every single day has the opportunity to reveal wrongs and do right…to make a difference in the lives of so many people?

But there did come a time when I needed a fresh perspective and another way to make a difference in this world. I give you a little story to illustrate the power of perspective. It involves the late Charles Kuralt, a man I knew and respected greatly. You will recall his marvelous “On the Road” series that ran for so many years on television. Mr. Kuralt told this story on himself:

The story was headlined: “The Remarkable Swimming Pig of San Marcos, Texas,” and it was envisioned as quite the attention-grabber. To ensure that the piece was documented so very precisely, CBS even obtained a special camera that could take underwater pictures of that little porker paddling along. Then the program ran, and Mr. Kuralt was blizzarded by letters from farmers saying, “You idiot! Any pig can swim.” In Mr. Kuralt’s subsequent judgment, “It would have been helpful to have known that before we did the story.”

Anyhow, ladies and gentlemen, that story reminds me that how we look at the world will change as we know more and as we grow in age and wisdom. And learning about “school readiness” via a Governor’s Commission back in the mid-Nineties ultimately led me to retire and devote my fulltime energies to high-quality early childhood development, care and education.

Now, you need to know that I come to you from one of the biggest, most challenging places in America. A place of wealth and poverty. Beauty and misery. The almost 2.4 million people in my county alone make us larger than 16 of these United States. No community is more diverse: 60 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African American or black (frequently not the same in Greater Miami), 19 percent non-Hispanic white (and only 15 percent of the babies).

Moreover, more than 50 percent of us were born in another country (the largest such percentage in these United States). We in Miami are living the “great American adventure.” What we unite on — through all our challenges of poverty, of culture, of language — is children.

Over these past half-dozen years, I have had so much to “unlearn,” including any sense that this was about children learning to read, say, by age 3. I read a great deal, visited places like France and Italy to learn more, came to know the research, and continue to follow it closely – one example being the national study that told us that if 50 first graders have problems reading, then 44 of them still have problems reading in the fourth grade. But you know that, and much more, and my mission is not to repeat, or even underscore, what you know better than I.

Armed with all research and knowledge, I came to believe the tragedy of early childhood unpreparedness was preventable. I came to believe that however good our intentions, we would never make more than incremental change unless we could create real “public will” for real change (most particularly the public awareness on the part of parents for what their children really needed). I came to believe that we must work on many fronts because children in their early years need all the basics – and all must be high quality because only real quality makes a difference in real outcomes for children. I came to believe that our greatest work must be on the local stage because, finally, we are not France; here in America the greatest power is local.

That means we must, community by community, build a movement. Not a “program.” Rather, a “movement.” We can not build a real “movement” unless it is about everyone’s child.

Now, when you think of the lessons of history, when you think of “movements,” what comes quickly to mind? Perhaps the Civil Rights Movement. Or the Feminist Movement. Both of those movements, in their earliest moments, were marginalized by others. Frequently ridiculed. And oppressed every chance some people got. Eventually, when most people came to understand that these were movements that spoke to every person and an American sense of “fairness,” they came to be part of the accepted foundation of this country. Let us remember that it is not coincidental that at least half the seats in most law and medical school classrooms in this country are occupied by women. This progress is a direct consequence of the struggle for women’s rights and the Feminist Movement. That movement is, in fact, about standing up for everyone’s rights in our country. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement was not just about African Americans, but about all Americans and the essence of American “fairness.”

Let me use kindergarten as an example of a “movement:

I frequently ask audiences to guess when kindergarten began, and usually I hear back that it was in their lifetime or that of their parents. That will give you most people’s perspective on history. But, in fact, kindergarten was “invented” in 1837, and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and, even, “anti-family.” For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society’s worst off and society’s best off. Only when it became a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten experience for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old. Kindergarten is still not “mandatory” in two-thirds of the states, but is there a parent of a 5-year-old today who wants anything less than a high-quality kindergarten-like experience for that child?

We can never build a real movement for “school readiness” unless we do so for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between. It is not about children in that neighborhood over there. Rather, it is about all children.

This is not the way most people do it. Instead they focus on one corner of the community, or another…and then the rest of the community says, “Oh, I understand it is about those children.”

But if we look at each community, and the whole community, we have the chance to make more progress and, indeed, build a movement in the early childhood years. The decency and civility of America ought not to be “means-tested.” Rather, high-quality basics ought to be available to all.

Now, what I am about to tell you might sound like bragging, though I point out that Dizzy Dean once said, “Braggin’ ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” Moreover, if you really knew me, you would know that I always running scared, never confident that we are “doing enough.”

So here you have this most interesting, challenging community called Miami, and here are some headlines of what we have been able to achieve by looking at ourselves in a more holistic way:

  • Led the campaign in our community in which people raised their taxes so we could have an extra $65 million a year in Miami-Dade County for early intervention and prevention.
  • Dramatically increased the number of high-quality child care facilities — from 17 to 290 (which amounts to more than a quarter of all the accredited child care sites in the whole state of Florida).
  • Began using social, emotional and cognitive assessments with thousands of Miami-Dade 3 and 4 year olds.
  • Created the best local early childhood website in the country, and 24-hour phone lines — and all in three languages.
  • Give 32,000 new parents every year the preview issue of a high-quality parent skill-building newsletter in a partnership with 13 birthing hospitals and nine midwifery centers.
  • Will launch this evening in Miami — in partnership with the national Anti-Defamation League — a book for every new baby in Miami (in three languages and with two purposes): (1) Serve as a parent’s first book for a baby, and (2) begin to build lifelong understanding for the value of diversity.
  • Partnered in a Kellogg Foundation-underwritten project that reaches 1,600 young children and works with them for five years in such areas as getting their child care centers accredited, in annual wellness exams, in annual social-emotional-cognitive assessments, in parent skill-building, and so forth.
  • Expanded special-needs services to cover 7,100 preschool children and families as well as 1,000 staff working in private child care.
  • Established relationships with universities, government agencies and private organizations to support research studies investigating literacy and professional development models. These studies involve 13,000+ preschool children in private and public sites.
  • Discussing with Miami-Dade Public Schools how to develop real “readiness” paths for 206 public elementary schools.

Moreover, the crucial leadership also came from our community to pass a statewide constitutional amendment to provide parents the opportunity, beginning later this year, of a high-quality pre-kindergarten experience for their 4 year olds. The honorable first steps have been taken, but there are things that must be fixed and enhanced to achieve the “high quality” the constitutional amendment demands. That includes the proper use of screening tools and assessments. And it includes mandated goals for professionally prepared teachers who understand how young children learn and how to implement developmentally appropriate learning experiences that promote thinking, creativity, problem-solving and, yes, social-emotional growth.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have here, I hope, amidst all the statistics and research, an audience of dreamers. An audience of do-ers. This great work can be done, if we do it together. One size won’t fit all. There will be no “children’s czar” chosen in my community, or anyone else’s. But if we hold true to the vision, committed to regular progress shared with the community, and real outcomes for children…then we can build a movement for all children.

Though I might have discovered this great imperative only in the past few years, and realize that in most cases your own awareness goes back much further, and your expertise much deeper, the moral and practical imperative that undergirds our work has been known for quite some time.

Socrates told us 2,500 years ago: “Fellow citizens,” he said, “why do you turn and scrape every stone to gather wealth, and take so little care of your children, to whom one day you must relinquish it all?”

Or perhaps you would prefer something more recent:

“Perhaps in the past,” writes the educator Diane Ravitch, “it was possible to undereducate a significant portion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation. No longer. Education, today more than (ever), is the key to successful participation in society. A boy or girl who cannot read, write or use mathematics is locked out of every sort of educational opportunity. A man or woman without a good elementary and secondary education is virtually precluded from higher education, from many desirable careers, from full participation in our political system, and from enjoyment of civilization’s great aesthetic treasures. The society that allows large numbers of its citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant or semiliterate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people.”

In whichever event, we have the wind at our backs…have made great progress in awakening America to this great mission…and have so much more to do. Let us do it together.

Thank you for what you have done…and will do. May God bless your great work.